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Prominent Russians: Grigory Potyomkin

September 13, 1739 – October 5, 1791
Grigory Potyomkin Grigory Potyomkin

Grigory Potyomkin was a favorite and lover of Catherine the Great, a statesman, and an adviser to the Empress. For a time he was the power behind the throne of the Russian Empire, and his conquests as a military general increased Russia’s territory by a third. 

Early years

Grigory Potyomkin was born in 1739 in the village of Chizhovо near Smolensk in the west of Russia. Potyomkin’s father didn’t boast a big fortune; he retired after having served several years as a captain in one of the infantry regiments.

Grigory didn’t receive a very good education; his father died while Grigory was still very young and left his family with no means for survival. Grigory’s uncle took pity on him and brought him to Moscow, where the boy was put in the same school as his cousin.


Potyomkin was an exceptionally bright and exceptionally lazy student. At one point he expressed a desire to join the clergy, and even tried to pursue it by singing in a church choir. However, in 1757 Empress Elizabeth founded the first ever University in Moscow for children of the nobility, and this is where Grigory was admitted at the age of twelve. He studied well, and his knowledge of Greek and Latin was so deep he took great pleasure in reading ancient texts in the original. He also enjoyed Russian poetry.

However, Potyomkin’s piquant wit and his violent temper made his teachers think him more fit for the active and risky pursuits of war than for peaceful church life. Eventually, he was expelled from the University for missing classes and moved to St. Petersburg to pursue a military career.

Potyomkin’s military career

Potyomkin’s relatives in Moscow recommended him to their acquaintances in high positions, so it didn’t take him long to become a cornet in a cavalry regiment. In Petersburg, Potyomkin was introduced to a number of young men, some of whom belonged to powerful families. This was another step toward making his fortune and acquiring the power he had longed for.

He soon obtained a lieutenancy and became acquainted with the prominent noble family of the Orlovs. There were five boys in the family, each of them making great careers. Grigory Orlov was the eldest and became Catherine the Great’s favorite and lover, essentially ruling Russia on her behalf; Aleksey commanded the Russian fleet in the war against the Turks; Vladimir became a senator, and Fyodor and Ivan were made chamberlains.

The coup of 1762

The Orlov brothers were the main force behind the coup that overthrew Peter III and helped his wife Catherine the Great ascend the Russian throne. The 23 year old Potyomkin was in the regiment which participated in the coup, and this is how he met Catherine II for the first time.

Grigory Orlov (who was already having an affair with the new Empress) discovered in Potyomkin a soul mate and an ally, and Potyomkin now frequently saw Catherine II and admired her beauty.

As soon as Catherine came to power, she granted generous rewards to the principal actors in the revolt against her husband. Being one of the members of the coup, Potyomkin was made a colonel and a gentleman of the bed-chambers. He was immediately sent to Stockholm to inform The Russian ambassador Count Ostermann of the revolution that had taken place in Petersburg.

Getting close to the Empress

Grigory Potyomkin Grigory Potyomkin

Upon his return from Sweden, Potyomkin used every opportunity to penetrate Catherine’s circle. Nature had endowed Potyomkin with a masculine and noble figure. He had polished manners and was a man of great intelligence. These qualities had not gone unnoticed by the Empress, and he received such flattering receptions from his sovereign that he thought himself authorized to repay her every attention.

Potyomkin was given his first command with the Izmailovsky Cavalry in 1766. The following year he was sent to Moscow, where he served within the Legislative Commission that was to draft a new law code for Russia.

Moved from military to court service, he escorted delegates to the Commission sent by various Asiatic tribesmen. It was then that Potyomkin developed his lifelong passion for the eastern inhabitants of the Russian Empire.

In 1768, Potyomkin was made a Chamberlain, but still was relatively unknown at court. He left his post to join the Russian army as a volunteer to fight in the First Russo-Turkish War (1768-74).

Military promotions

Potyomkin's first post upon returning to his military career was an assignment to the staff of Field Marshal Dmitry Golitsyn, and then to that of his replacement General Nikolay Rumyantsev. Because of his court connections, Rumyantsev made Potyomkin his aide-de-camp, which promised Potyomkin both security and easy promotions. Potyomkin, however, desired a chance to show himself off as a soldier, and appealed directly to the Empress for a post at the front – a request she granted.

As an active cavalry commander during the war, he distinguished himself in battles and contributed to the brilliant victories that earned Rumyantsev the rank of field marshal. Though still a junior commander, Potyomkin's role in routing the Turkish army earned him a promotion to lieutenant-general and the coveted awards of the Orders of St. Anna and St. George. By this time he had been recognized as one of the best cavalry commanders in Russia and once again came to the attention of Catherine the Great, who had recently ended her long affair with Grigory Orlov.

In late 1774 the Empress reassigned Potyomkin to her personal regimen, and he returned to St. Petersburg.

Potyomkin’s character

Catherine II was 44 when Grigory Potyomkin, ten years her junior, became her lover. In the permissive atmosphere of the 18th century Russian court, Potyomkin's relationship with the Empress was by no means a secret. Potyomkin escorted the Empress openly and participated in all public affairs, gradually acquiring significant influence over her mind.

Disguising his ambition under the mask of love, Potyomkin quickly realized that constant displays of affection almost always becomes fatiguing. So he started to vary his manner and his behavior towards Catherine, interchanging gallantry and rudeness, caprices and attentions. He was only slightly less feared and respected than the sovereign herself, who he sometimes treated with little ceremony to the astonishment of the court.

Catherine’s affection exposed him to a truly luxurious existence. Potyomkin was the first of Catherine's favorites who had a regular monthly pension of twelve thousand rubles, an immense sum of money at the time. Besides the incredible income which he enjoyed, his household expenses were entirely paid by the Empress. Yet he was so excessive and his income so badly administered that he was constantly in debt, also often paid by the Empress.

 A man of volcanic character, Potyomkin was a gambler, a heavy drinker, and eater. Legend has it that he could eat three geese in one sitting, even when ill. 

He also loved women, and knew the art of seduction well. After “retiring” from being Catherine’s lover, he seduced his nieces who lived with him, later marrying them off. His noble status ensured them good marriages despite any rumors of their relationship with their uncle. To Potyomkin’s credit, however, all of his nieces adored him for the rest of their lives.

He was full of good humor, but was also rough, moody, vain, jealous, and cynical. However, these negative qualities didn’t prevent him from having a brilliant career. Potyomkin ascended rapidly through the ranks, being appointed a Count of the Russian Empire, a member of Catherine's Secret Council, vice-president of the War Council, and a Knight of the Order of St. Andrew in short order. He was also granted the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky. Frederick II (the Great) awarded Potyomkin the Black Eagle of Prussia, while a host of other medals and awards were soon forthcoming from Poland, Denmark, Sweden, and especially Austria, where the Emperor Joseph II made Potyomkin a prince of the Holy Roman Empire.

A secret marriage

Grigory Potyomkin Grigory Potyomkin

Catherine was truly in love with Potyomkin. Her love letters to him are the best evidence of her devotion. The true nature of Potyomkin's own feelings for Catherine may never be known although there seems to be no doubt that he genuinely admired her intellect and her talents as a ruler.

Catherine, in turn, considered him a genius, brave, intelligent, loyal, and just. Charmed by his coarse masculinity, she called him her Cossack, Muscovite, Tatar, imbecile, or infidel.

Historians believe that Catherine and Potyomkin were secretly married, for Catherine refers to him as her husband and spouse in her love letters and to herself as his wife. However, their romantic relationship lasted only two years. But end of their affair didn’t mean the end of their relationship as political allies, partners, and friends.

In order to retain his influence over Catherine, Potyomkin chose lovers for Catherine himself. Knowing that he could continue to fill her needs outside the bedchamber, Potyomkin cheerfully selected a series of good-looking young men who didn’t pose any threat to his position.

Although Catherine's affair with Potyomkin was over by 1775, he remained a major figure at court, being its virtual director. Catherine had always been grateful to Potyomkin for his friendship, devotion, and good counsel. Admiring his abilities, she used every opportunity to reward him.

Grigory Potyomkin and Catherine the Great had a daughter, Elizaveta, whose last name was changed to Tyomkina by dropping the first syllable of Count’s last name for obvious reasons.

Catherines right hand man

Catherine dreamt of creating a new state in the Balkans from the Russian conquest of the Romanian principalities of Moldavia, Walachia, and Bessarabia; the new entity, with proper attention to classical antecedents, was to be called the "Kingdom of Dacia" and was to have Potyomkin as its king.

Catherine also had plans for the southern regions of the Caucasus Mountains, where she imagined a revival of the Kingdom of Armenia under Russian auspices, again with Potyomkin as its sovereign. Potyomkin was especially enthusiastic and supportive of Catherine’s dream of reviving the Byzantine Empire as a vassal of Russia, her so-called “Greek Project.” Russia planned to conquer the Ottoman Empire and place one of Catherine’s two grandsons on its throne, ruling either from Constantinople or Athens. The project remained a dream, however, never fully materializing.

Building up the South of the Russian Empire

By 1776, Potyomkin's position at court was sufficiently strong for him to readily accept appointments at a considerable distance from the capital. Accepting the position of governor of the newly acquired territories of Azov, Astrakhan, and Saratov founded in 1781, he took charge of the new fortifications constructed along the Dnieper River.

Potyomkin made special efforts to settle the newly acquired southern lands with Greek Orthodox Slavs and Balkan Romanians eager to escape Turkish rule.

Potyomkin also founded a number of settlements, including Kherson, Sevastopol, Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk) and the port of Odessa, which all grew to become important cities.

The grateful Empress rewarded him with the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg (later the residence of the Dowager Empress of Russia, mother of the last Czar). 

After being appointed commander of all of the light cavalry and the other irregular troops in the army, Potyomkin devoted himself to military organization, redesigning the uniforms to facilitate fighting, limiting corporal punishment, and setting inspectors to supervise health and sanitation.

Annexation of the Crimea

The successful conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War in 1774 left the Khanate of the Crimea (the last remnant of the Mongol Empire in Europe) a virtual vassal of Russia; it was at this point that Potyomkin, with Catherine's consent, began drafting his plans for its outright annexation.

Potyomkin was put in command of the army dispatched to occupy the territory. Proceeding with little opposition, he successfully occupied the peninsula and on July 26 1783 its formal annexation was announced.

The annexation of the Crimea was a milestone in Potyomkin's career. In St. Petersburg, Catherine built the magnificent Taurida Palace for him, which from 1906 to 1917 would be used to house the Russian Imperial Duma (Parliament). She also gave him an estate on the Crimean Peninsula, with gardens designed by a popular English architect. Potyomkin was allowed to play a key role in the development of the new provinces acquired in the south.

He supervised the relocation of the Greek and Armenian populations of the territory, and the establishment of new colonies for them in Ukraine: the Greeks were settled in Mariupol on the Sea of Azov; the Gregorian Armenians were settled at Grigoriopol and New Nakhichevan near Rostov-on-the-Don; and the Catholic Armenians were settled at Ekaterinoslav.

A lover of Russia

By 1784, Potyomkin had reached the highest military rank of Field Marshal. He was placed in charge of the organization of the Black Sea Fleet, advising Catherine on economic and other affairs and negotiating treaties.

In 1787, Potyomkin supervised the famous voyage of Catherine II down the Dnieper River in the company of Joseph II. It was on this trip that Potyomkin is said to have erected dummy villages (derisively referred to in the West as "Potyomkin villages") filled with happy peasants in holiday garb singing, dancing, and drinking vodka supplied for the occasion. Historians later discovered that the Potyomkin villages were real, and that the stories of Potyomkin constructing fake facades in order to impress the Empress were mere myth.

The same year saw the outbreak of the second Russo-Turkish War (1787-91) and, though Potyomkin's reformed army did not perform as well as expected, Russia emerged from the conflict victorious. 

Death and legacy

Grigory Potyomkin Grigory Potyomkin

However, in 1791, his health shaken by a number of fevers experienced in the south, Potyomkin died suddenly on October 16. He was buried in the church of St. Catherine in Kherson in the Crimea, where his niece Aleksandra erected a mausoleum to hold his remains. On learning the news, an unprepared Catherine suffered a stroke; it has been said that the Empress never fully recovered from his death.

Potyomkin is the best example in Russian history of a man who ruled the country without actually assuming the Russian throne. His genius expressed itself in everything he did as courtier, soldier, governor, statesman, administrator, and planner. No ruler could have asked for a more trusted advisor or devoted subject.

In an Empire officially ruled by the sovereign, Potyomkin was certainly the greatest of the de facto prime ministers in Russian history. Unlike Aleksandr Suvorov or Mikhail Kutuzov, Potyomkin was by no means a military hero. However, his military reforms and campaigns resulted in an increase of the territory of the Russian Empire by a third.

Potyomkin made innumerable enemies but never lost the favor of his sovereign Catherine II, to whom he was not just a lover, but a friend, and an ally.

Written by Olga Prodan, RT

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